Los Angeles County supervisors expressed dismay at this week's federal charges against 18 former and current Sheriff's Department members, and one took the opportunity to renew calls for a citizens' commission to oversee the massive law enforcement agency.
The board controls the Sheriff's Department's budget, but has no official power over Sheriff Lee Baca because he is an elected official. But supervisors have moved to take a more active role in the department's affairs. Most recently, they voted to hire veteran public corruption prosecutor Max Huntsman to fill the newly created post of inspector general.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina earlier this year proposed setting up a citizens' panel similar to the one that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, which was hit by misconduct convictions during the so-called Rampart scandal in the 1990s.
The other supervisors did not support the plan, saying the inspector general's office — which was set up at the recommendation of a panel that studied jail violence — would be a more effective watchdog. Ridley-Thomas said he hopes the recent arrests will lead them to reconsider. The proposal for a citizens' commission is slated to come back before the board next month.
"There is a model that has made [LAPD] better. It would seem to some that the county of Los Angeles would be anxious to do something similar if not better, particularly in light of today's revelations," Ridley-Thomas said. "…This is a cultural problem, fundamentally so, and this is tantamount in some ways to the stench of Rampart."
Federal charges and indictments released Monday include allegations of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and improperly arresting, searching and beating visitors to the jails.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who does not support creating a citizens' oversight commission, said during the board's weekly meeting Tuesday that he does support continuing efforts to hold wrongdoers in the Sheriff's Department accountable.
"We know that continuing investigations are going on and very likely this is only the tip of the iceberg and it's going to go higher up the chain of command," he said.
Molina, a longtime critic of Baca, said in a biting statement, "Reform starts at the top, and strong leaders don't simply embrace reform — they initiate it. Unfortunately, strong management has been absent from the Sheriff's Department for years."
Baca, who is up for reelection, has said that the problems in the department are confined to a small group of bad actors, and that he has worked to implement reforms as problems come to light.
The supervisors held an emergency discussion of the deputy arrests in a closed-door meeting Tuesday, but did not report taking any action there. They did vote 3-1 to appeal a $7.5-million jury verdict against the department in a lawsuit brought by the parents of 21-year-old Robert Thomas Jr., who was fatally shot in 2010 by sheriff's deputies in Willowbrook.
Candidates vying for the board seat that will be vacated by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky next year also weighed in.
Former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl said she would look into using the power of the purse strings to force reform.
"The difficult thing for the supervisors is they really don't have direct authority over the jails," she said. "They do not have budget authority to say to the sheriff, 'You must spend this money we're giving you in certain ways' so it's been very limiting to them."
But, she said, the board could theoretically set aside money for certain programs aimed at reducing jail violence within the county chief executive officer's office, and require the Sheriff's Department to bill the county for work.
West Hollywood Councilman John Duran, who is also a candidate, called for the board to create an oversight commission for sheriff's employees who work in county-wide positions — in jails, courts and probation — and allow the cities that contract with the department to create local oversight commissions for complaints within their boundaries.
"Smaller government is better. Local government, I think, is more effective and efficient," he said. "Unfortunately I think the county has become so large, massive, unwieldy, it's impossible to do so many different things."